Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Central Asia: To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign against Islam in Central Asia, 1917-1941

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Central Asia: To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign against Islam in Central Asia, 1917-1941

Article excerpt

To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign Against Islam in Central Asia, 19171941, by Shoshana Keller. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001. xix + 254 pages. Gloss. to p. 260. Bibl. to p. 270. Index to p. 277. About the Author. $64.95.

This substantial scholarly work traces the evolution of Tsarist Russian and Soviet policy toward Islam in Central Asia, especially the republic of Uzbekistan. The broad outlines of the story are familiar from other studies and the author's assertion that Islam's influence endured among Central Asians, despite the blow dealt it by the Soviets has already been demonstrated by events of the past dozen years. What makes this book so noteworthy is the author's extensive use of hitherto inaccessible archives of the former Soviet Union. She has mined these skillfully, to provide a wealth of details which illuminate both the policy debates within Soviet ranks and the ways the policies were implemented.

One of the central themes of this book is that the Soviet regime, for all its willingness to be ruthless in its efforts to transform Central Asia, was far from mastery of local conditions. Higher-level officials did not have accurate information about what was happening in the countryside, although the explanation must be more complex than the one the author provides, which emphasizes the lack of phones and the shortage of paper, since the same problem existed at the end of the Soviet era, when the sheer logistics of communication was no longer a problem. The regime's attempts to appropriate income from waqfs were undermined by competition among different government bodies for use of those funds. The Soviets were able to abolish shari'a courts after years of trying, but sometimes the new courts which replaced them were presided over by former qadis. In the 1920s, village government officials included Islamic functionaries, who were likely to be among the more educated and respected inhabitants of a village. The Communist leadership in Moscow did not understand that the concept of separate secular and religious spheres which had evolved in Europe was meaningless to the vast majority of Muslims in newly Soviet Central Asia. That misunderstanding led to ill-conceived propaganda, which sought to undermine belief in Islam without offending national feelings. The fact that Islam was an integral part of the culture and identity of many Central Asians meant that in the 1920s, there were Central Asian members of the Communist Party who considered themselves Muslims, to the point of participating in religious rites. …

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